Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi everybody. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. At the end of July, we checked in on Cuba after historic demonstrations erupted across the country, in which thousands protested the severe economic crisis, the mismanagement of the pandemic, and government restrictions on civil liberties and freedoms.
Melissa Harris-Perry: According to Cubalex, an NGO tracking arrest in the country, the Cuban government has cracked down on dissenters arresting more than 800 Cubans in the days and weeks since the July protests began. At the same time, the country's healthcare system has struggled to keep up with the spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths. In response to these urgent cases, Cuban healthcare workers have taken the unprecedented step of posting social media videos criticizing the government's response to the pandemic on the island. The Cuban government has tried to limit online dissent with a new law, labeling many critical posts as fake news, and banning their creation and distribution. For more than this, I'm joined by Patrick Oppmann a CNN International correspondent and Havana Bureau Chief. Welcome back to the show, Patrick.
Patrick Oppmann: Thank you so much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, Patrick, last time we talked, we heard that hundreds of demonstrators had been arrested. Do you know if folks have been released? Are there still people who have been detained?
Patrick Oppmann: There are so many people who are detained in facing trial. Some of the cases that have gotten publicity or just that there was nothing really there behind the charges those people were facing. They had been released, and we have asked the Cuban government as other journalists how many people are detained, how many people are still facing trial and they just refuse to answer that. We do know it's in the hundreds.
Some people have already been sentenced for up to a year, simply for being out on the street when the protests were happening, for filming the protest for live streaming the protests, and other people who the Cuban government accuses of trying to encourage people to protests or breaking into stores or fighting with police. Those people face far more serious charges, but certainly, there are hundreds of people now that continue to remain behind bars and likely will face some serious prison time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Patrick, do you have a sense of the conditions of detainment for folks who have in fact been detained?
Patrick Oppmann: I've talked to relatives of some people who were convicted, but then released on appeal. They say to me that they never had access to attorneys, that they were tried in a mass trial with 20 other people. They didn't know who they were or they weren't involved with what those people did, and that essentially these trials took place in a day and that they were all of a sudden sentenced to a year or more in prison. The Cuban government says that everyone has the right to an attorney, that children were not arrested or facing trial, and yet, there's a lot of evidence that seems to indicate that what they've said is not true.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Again, because American audiences often don't know much about what's happening on a day-to-day basis in Cuba, it's this detention and these mass trials and the inability to defend oneself. Is that relatively new? Is it just surprising relative to the size and scope? Is this something that is consistent?
Patrick Oppmann: Of course, we've never seen it on this scale, but it is consistent with the Cuban justice system, which most outside observers would say is not an independent justice system. You don't have the judges overruling the government or letting people go. We just haven't seen it on this scale before, because what happened on July 11th and afterward never really happened in decades in this country where you had thousands of people, not just here in Nevada, but across this island, literally every major city in a lot of small towns on this island, thousands of people coming out and saying that they'd had enough, that they were angry about the handling of the pandemic.
Then just so many people coming out and saying they wanted freedom, that they felt that they had not had freedom in their lifetimes. That is something that they were demanding. The government responded very harshly by cracking down by cutting off the internet. Now, with these mass trials and as well trying to essentially warn people about their use of social media in the future.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk a little bit about the doctors and healthcare workers who are doing this online social protest around the COVID pandemic. What prompted this?
Patrick Oppmann: It really is one of the more extraordinary things I've seen in nine years of living here and reporting full-time, on Cuba. The COVID situation is very dire here, even though Cuba did take the very impressive step of coming up with their own vaccines. That delayed deploying those vaccines, Cuba for the longest time has not accepted vaccines from other countries. They said, "No, we can do this. We have a biotech industry, and we're going to not only come up with vaccines for ourselves, but we can sell them overseas".
That meant that they began vaccinating a lot later than other countries, and with the Delta variant is just overwhelmed. Hospitals here, a lot of medicines were in short supply. In the midst of the worst of this crisis, you had the Cubist prime minister go to a really hard-hit province and start criticizing the doctors who were usually treated as heroes. They've been working around the clock seven days a week on the front lines of really a worsening crisis.
He said that the complaints that a lot of people have been voicing more and more openly, that the doctor's war some of the responsibility for the problems that we've seen and a number of doctors now, dozens of them came out using their names, showing their faces on social media, recording videos and saying that the healthcare system has collapsed, that there's no medicine, that there have been shortages of oxygen that's caused people to die. That the government has not been honest about the COVID numbers of cases, deaths, and it's much worse than the government's been letting on.
This is really unprecedented because doctors, of course, work for the government here. The government of the sides of the doctor-- has embarrassed the government or broken the regulations, that's the end of that doctor's career, or it could be worse. They could under these new laws perhaps face some legal penalties. It's quite a brave move for these doctors to come out. It shows that they feel they have nothing left to lose and so far we've not heard about any of these doctors actually losing their jobs. They're just in such short supply right now, but certainly, they're going to have a black mark next to their names. The government is very upset that these doctors took this unprecedented step to come on and criticize the government's handling of the pandemic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's such an interesting point, though, Patrick, that the pandemic itself also gives them relative power that they might not typically have because you simply can't do without all of your potential healthcare providers.
Patrick Oppmann: They're bringing doctors back from countries around the world where they sent doctors, countries like Cuba's ally, Venezuela, and countries that have been paying for those doctor services that are also hard hit by the pandemic. Now Cuba's pulling those doctors back because they don't have enough doctors here. You're hearing not only about people dying because they don't have basic medicines here to treat COVID, but also dying because they don't have medications for cancer treatment and other things that typically you would have medicine here for, and you go into hospitals now and they are overrun with COVID patients.
They are lacking basic medicines and even people who are able to find the medicines in the black market, when they go to the hospitals to give those medicines to the doctors for the relatives, the doctors say, "We're not allowed to use those medicines, unless you can show me a receipt that you bought them at a pharmacy." But of course, the pharmacies are absolutely empty here. They're completely picked over. People are very frustrated that the government can't seem to treat people, but then doesn't let you find the medicines if you're able to track them down.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's worth noting that hurricane season is not over yet, that hurricane Ida just passed through as cat one. I'm wondering, given the conditions you've just described, what happens if a larger hurricane comes to Cuba?
Patrick Oppmann: It really could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. I've talked to government officials, and they've said that they're basically crossing all their fingers that doesn't happen because of course, like anywhere else in the world, even though Cuba has a lot of experience with hurricanes, they knock out the power for weeks. They cause major disruptions. Really that has been one of the things that kicked off the protests, that when the government, which had already its cash strapped because there's been no tourism during the pandemic, is already seeing disruptions in the power grid, just on a regular daily basis.
It was in the small town near Havana, power outages that had lasted about a week that didn't have anything to do with the hurricane. That's what caused people initially to go into the street. Then we saw that cascade effect across this island. If a hurricane were to come, as they have in the past, and knock out the power and much of this island for days or weeks you could expect there to be civil disturbances. People really feel that they are the end of their rope and something like that, which of course would disrupt the food supply and just slammed this government already when they're on their knees would probably have some major ripple effects. People certainly in the government are praying that doesn't happen, but of course, it's up to other nature.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Patrick Oppmann is a CNN International correspondent and Havana Bureau Chief. Thanks again, Patrick.
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